Australian authorities have ended the search for more survivors from an asylum-seeker boat that sank off Indonesia, citing the unlikely prospect of anyone surviving that amount of time in the sea.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said today the search was called off “following medical advice that there is no realistic prospect of survivability”.
The wooden asylum-seeker boat was about eight nautical miles from Java and about 220 nautical miles from Christmas Island when it issued a distress call at about 1.30am Jakarta time (0430 AEST) on Wednesday.
It’s believed the boat sank at about 7am local time (1000 AEST) on Wednesday.
Muhammed Zahir begged desperately for his sister to stay with him as they drifted in each others arms for days in the Sunda Strait, praying help would come.
But tired and injured, she couldn’t hold on any longer, slipping away and beneath the waves before the rescue boats arrived.
“She told me, ’kill yourself, let’s go together’,” he said.
“I said, ’please don’t go’, but she’s gone.”
As tears streamed down his face, Zahir told of the nightmare he has endured since the boat they were on with 150 others sank on the way to Australia.
Like the rest of those aboard the rickety wooden vessel, Zahir is an ethnic Hazara. They were fleeing persecution in Afghanistan.
Zahir, 25, was one of the 54 survivors brought to Merak in western Java today. His sister, who was 29, remains one of the almost 100 others missing, feared drowned.
The survivors were brought to shore in two Indonesian search and rescue boats after earlier being transferred from the larger vessels.
Among them were two women and a 10-year-old boy named Oemid.
The young boy sat quietly on the deck of the rescue boat, speaking only to say his name and reveal he had lost his father, uncle and a cousin.
They all paid at least $5000 to make the perilous journey to Australia.
A number of the survivors confirmed today that the people smuggler who sent many of their friends and family to their deaths is a Pakistani named Haji Ghulam.
The two groups brought ashore on Friday will initially be taken to a hotel in Merak. After they are processed by Indonesian authorities, they will be placed in detention.
Zahir made one last, desperate plea to be taken to Australia as he stood on the deck of the rescue boat.
“Australians are humane. They love people,” he said.
He was loaded onto a bus a short time later.
Unlike in other incidents in recent months involving asylum seeker boats in distress, the Australian Government refused to take survivors to Christmas Island and insisted they be returned to Indonesia.
Their arrival at Merak came as Australian and Indonesian vessels, as well as a number of merchant ships, continues to scour an area more than 40 nautical miles out to sea in the hope of finding more survivors.
Almost 100 of the 150 people who were on the small wooden boat when it sank remain missing, including women and children.
The search resumed at first light today, despite authorities conceding a crucial rescue window had probably already passed.
Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare had already pointed out the chances of rescue diminish significantly after about 48 hours.
That window of opportunity passed as the first of the survivors were being offloaded in Merak.
It’s believed the boat sank about 7am local time (10am AEST) on Wednesday morning.
It had been about eight nautical miles from Java and about 220 nautical miles from Christmas Island when the distress call was made.
By the time the first people were rescued, they had been in the water for almost 24 hours and had drifted to a point some 40 nautical miles off the Javanese coast.
The incident is the latest in a spate of tragedies along the same route - in the Sunda Strait between Indonesia and Christmas Island - with more than 300 asylum seekers having already drowned in the same area since December.
It comes as Indonesian and Australian officials, including Mr Clare, prepare to hold talks in Jakarta next week on maritime co-operation, including enhancing collaborative efforts aimed at stemming the flow of asylum seeker boats to Australia.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison welcomed the talks but said “the risk of further tragedies remains”.
As the rescue operation continued, authorities in Australia confirmed that another boat carrying 31 asylum seekers had been intercepted north of the Cocos Islands.